Walyas look to make up for lost time
ADDIS ABABA - When Mengistu Worku struck deep into extra time against Egypt to clinch Ethiopia's first African Cup of Nations title in 1962, the home victory appeared to herald an era of dominance for the pioneering Horn of Africa country.
While the likes of Ghana and Nigeria fell early in the qualifying rounds, Ethiopia wowed spectators with their flair and fluid passing game, earning the moniker "the Brazil of Africa".
They also reached the tournament's semi-finals in 1963 and 1968 but the euphoria did not last long.
The promise ebbed as a series of lacklustre appearances in later tournaments saw them hobbling to first round exits, while they also inexplicably withdrew from qualifiers on a number of occasions.
Political turmoil in the 1970s and 1980s cast Ethiopia into the footballing wilderness, and some of the country's best players kept hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons by absconding while on international duty.
Fast-forward to 2013 and Ethiopia - nicknamed the Walya Antelopes after an endemic and endangered ibex - are now looking to re-establish themselves in the continental fold after booking a place at this month's African Cup of Nations, their first since 1982 and five decades since they lifted the cup.
A 5-5 aggregate score line in their play-off against Sudan in October sealed their place, sparking wild street celebrations among football fans who struggled to absorb the turnaround in fortune.
"We made it. Nothing is impossible with hard work," captain Degu Debebe said soon after the match at Addis Ababa's 30,000-capacity stadium. "It is a new beginning for all of us."
"HERD OF COWS"
It was a cagey first half. Sudan's "Falcons of Jediane" sought to retain their 5-3 lead and rarely ventured beyond their own half. A nerve-wracking first 45 minutes appeared to signal the return of ghosts of qualifiers past.
Enter Adane Girma and Egypt-based Saladin Seid. Two second-half strikes in four minutes turned the tie on its head and the Walyas held their nerves to break Sudanese hearts.
Most Ethiopian fans and pundits could be forgiven for their past relentless tirades against the Walyas.
October's qualification was sealed on the back of a debilitating suspension from FIFA in 2008 following a power tussle amongst the country's football chiefs.
The Walyas were also hampered by a managerial merry-go-round that saw 15 appointments in 11 years, including the sacking of Briton Iffy Onuora who was dismissed by the F.A. after he told newspapers he often had to "clear a herd of cows off a pitch in order for the team to train".
Ethiopia's F.A. chief Sahilu Gebremariam says his body set about introducing sweeping changes soon after the leadership spat was resolved and the suspension lifted.
Its 18-team Premier League was slashed to 14 and clubs were ordered to satisfy FIFA criteria on coaching standards and youth development, under the watchful gaze of the world governing body.
"We designed a strategic plan on where we are, where we went wrong and how we can improve," Sahilu told Reuters. "Today's improvement is the result of what we did."
The east African nation is planning to set up academies to nurture players and construct stadiums throughout the country, including a 60,000-seat national arena in the capital.
The money is flowing in, in particular from local businessmen keen to see the game flourish in Ethiopia. The country also harbours designs on hosting the African Cup of Nations soon.
"We had budget problems before. I don't think that will be the case now," said Sewnet Bishaw, the national team's head coach.
"NO SUPERIORITY OR INFERIORITY"
This month in the finals in South Africa the Walyas will lock horns against champions Zambia, Nigeria and Burkina Faso - considered one of the tournament's toughest groups.
The odds will be stacked against them, but there is no sign of lost confidence.
"We are not expecting our players to bring the cup, but we want to be competitive. There's no feeling of superiority or inferiority in us," Sahilu said.
Sewnet has built a side that is comfortable in possession, but admits his team lacks experience and is prone to making mistakes. He is lining up friendlies against Tunisia and Tanzania in a desperate bid to bridge the gap in top-flight expertise.
"The event will give us courage, and our players also have a great opportunity now of being scouted and becoming famous," he told Reuters. "Who knows, we might see them play for the world's biggest teams soon."